The summer before my senior year in high school, my girlfriend drove me to a little boutique in Honolulu and told me she was going to buy me a bikini. She explained what she wanted to the saleswoman; they both peered at me for a bit and then started going around racks picking out various suits. That is a generous word for them: suits. I hadn’t yet hit my stride as a confident nudist. I was still more giraffe than girl if we’re being honest.
I’d started to weigh in on some of the selections but was quickly shushed. It seemed clear that I’d have to veto from the fitting room.
“Start with these,” the saleswoman said, giving my girlfriend a pile. I stepped forward to take the pile and was instead shoved with girl and pile into the dressing room, door locked, my shirt lifted over my head.
“Hold on now!” I wiggled to the farthest corner, and held out my hands. “I’m perfectly capable of dressing and undressing myself.”
From somewhere beyond the tiny booth, the saleswoman laughed.
“Keep your voice down!” And then, just like that, 8.76 million bikinis were dragged on and off me. And I was made to pose as though I might be anyone, and could certainly imagine her, as I had my top adjusted and was directed to “Stretch!” and “Crouch like someone’s just spiked a volleyball at you!” and “Pretend you’re swimming!”
Eventually we would forego the locked door altogether and the saleswoman and my girlfriend would helpfully adjust various suits as though a little more managing were all the situation required.
“Stand up straight,” they’d command.
“How long are her legs?” the saleswoman whispered to my girlfriend at one point.
“Three quarters of her body,” she replied.
If you’ve ever tried on bikinis, you know there’s no place to hide. There’s just you, and your underpants, and a saleswoman, and your girlfriend, and a palpable desire for pockets.
By the end, we’d discovered someone who hadn’t previously existed. Someone less giraffe and more girl and possibly even the sort of girl who could walk into a girls’ bathroom without any fears at all. We didn’t uncover a single curve, except my terrible posture, but the girl staring back at me from the mirror wasn’t me at all, and so they found her perfect in her blue and black bikini.
That was the summer I got a cocktail dress.
That was the summer I began to realize that bossy girlfriends were my favorite kind. But that was the summer’s only true discovery.
If we tell ourselves lies to grow into the people we imagine, it takes longer to get there. More costumes, more parts. I can still see the scathing way that she looked at me, hiking one cup and then the other up. The real disappointment of trying to make me a little more something than I was. I look best in lipstick when I’m wearing a 3-piece suit. That’s the takeaway here. We are complex.
I remember us in that little boutique, before the illness that would take my tonsils, before the hurricane, before either of our families had any idea that I was in love with a girl, and would give up everything to stay with her, and then give up everything to get away from her. Before my injuries. That’s how I remember that boutique.
But already in this story, there’s corruption. And I find myself unwilling to let it be heartbreaking.
I got something out of both of those girls in that little booth in Honolulu. The one who insisted I could be different. And the one who was willing to try it for a time.
It took me longer to find my way, but I got to wander down so many streets I’d never have found any other way. Girl 101. A little less giraffe. A little more underwire. Legs for days.